Chez Panisse looms large in my food mind. My first apartment in Berkeley was up the street from the Gourmet Ghetto, and one of my first weekends in town there was an anniversary event for the restaurant. Shattuck avenue closed off, people clogging the streets. Think I may have even seen Jeremiah Tower holding forth.
Later there were meals with there with friends and girlfriends. Sometimes these were special occasions, other nights just dessert and a glass of port. My wife worked there for a couple of years. When we met, several of her friends had worked or were working there. Some still do.
Particularly in the Cafe, there's the sense of something classic. Part of it is the space, all that wood and copper, the huge flower arrangement, even the pizza oven. And then there's the food. After a minute or two with menu the song running through my head was Wyclef's "It Doesn't Matter":
How many of y'all ever been to a barbecue
And you always got an aunt or uncle
wanna show you how the old dances go
And they start it off like this...
The Baked Sonoma goat cheese and lettuces are always on the menu. There's always a chicken dish, a fish dish, and something heavier - beef or pork. Confits, al mattone, gratins.
The wine list will always have a Kermit Lynch lean that extends all the way to Neyers Vineyard (operated by Kermit's sales director for North America). When we ordered wine 1994 Bandol, Cabassaou, Domaine Tempier our waiter went into all business mode and nearly tripped over himself in his haste to decant.
We had a pizza with bitter greens and pancetta to start. The greens were cooked perfectly, still bright and not cooked to death. The pancetta was crisp and translucent, golden brown at the edges. The crust was not as good as my wife remembered; a friend confided that they'd been having dough issues lately.
There was a beet and cucumber dish. The beets were tasty - naturally sweet, and dressed tart.
We both had "Pork Two Ways", with grilled polenta and greens. Pork confit and slices of pork loin. I took issue with the polenta. The grilling was superficial and left the polenta tasting unpleasantly charred. The pork was just what you'd expect though. Intensely flavorful and moist.
For dessert we had a fruit bowl of figs, bronx grapes and a single peach. If it's possible for fruit to be kick ass, then the grapes and peach were totally that.
I never go to Chez Panisse expecting to be surprised, but in the last 12 months they managed to spring Green Olive Oil and those grapes on me. They are also taking an interest in heirloom farm breeds.
We typically get together with several friends for dinner during Zinfandel week (December). Don't know if I'll be able to wait that long to go back.